Keepers of the formula
director: Dragan Bjelogrlić
screenplay: Vuk Ršumović, Dragan Bjelogrlić, Ognjen Sviličić, based on the novel “The Vinča Case” by Goran Milašinović
Country: Serbia, 2023.
As part of the preparation for the analysis of the film “Guardians of the Formula”, I read a segment of the book “Alchemy of the Bomb” by Slobodan Bubnjević, which concerns the history of Yugoslavia’s attitude towards nuclear energy.
As the author aesthetically accurately observes, the scientific institution in Vinci (founded in the winter of 1947/48) from 1950 to 1953 bore the “beautiful” name of the Institute for the Study of the Structure of Matter.
It is precisely through this, at the same time concrete and romantic, definition of purpose that the interpretation of the film should begin, and that from the first acquaintance with the interior of the institute.
The main character Dragoslav Popović (Radivoje Bukvić) walks through terrifying corridors until he reaches, for the year 1958, imposing facilities.
Uniformed faces and checkpoints direct the viewer to the conclusion: “Well, it was a serious state, not…”.
But the viewer – probably because they are “Guardians of the Formula” intended for mass use – he was not informed about what was actually being done in that Vinci, nor how far it had progressed.
And boring history says that the chain reaction in the experimental reactor was achieved at the beginning of 1958, and that Josip Broz put it into operation in May of that year – in fact, he only pictured himself pressing the button for marketing purposes, because, logically, something that is used for experimentation does not may be in continuous operation.
Six months later, at the RB reactor, a group of technicians helped graduate students Života Vranić and Radojko Maksić (Dragoslav Popović was not present) who were conducting an academic experiment.
The temperature rose, the alarm did not go off, some testimonies claim that everything was preceded by an argument due to the entry of certain persons who did not have a place in the room at that moment, that the reactor was left unattended for ten minutes.
Anyway, it seems that when it was realized that everything was going to hell, the devices were turned off and the room was abandoned, only for Vranić to return a minute later, because someone had to, climbed on top of the reactor and definitively stopped the chain reaction.
By doing so, he prevented a larger-scale catastrophe and condemned himself to death.
In the film, the details are omitted, while we sympathize with the pressure that Popović suffers from Aleksandar Ranković, in order not to provide the result of the expensive mining of autochthonous uranium from Stara Planina and the even more expensive security secrecy.
Which brings us back to the structure of matter and the first of the motifs that interest the filmmakers.
Yes, it was a serious country that, at the same time, took itself too seriously, to the point of self-destruction.
At the same time, it suffered from the tragic “hamartia”, a defect that leads to ruin, where every enterprise was corrupted by the authoritarian basis of the society in which it was carried out.
The film’s Popović is thus required to make a revolutionary discovery while, in his own words, he is “surrounded by spies” – among them a sensual member of the research team in charge of the “honey trap” activity.
If you are in the mood, you can also think about the “Manhattan” project, where scientists fought to eliminate the division into sectors that deal only with their direct task.
The path to progress lies in the exchange of opinions, which inevitably leads a society dominated by fear towards regression.
The film, therefore, crosses the path from idealization to deconstruction of the past, at the end of which you will certainly not hate Yugoslavia, but maybe Jadranka Stojaković’s song “We could have done everything, if the day were longer” would ring in your ears.
By changing the historical facts, the desired meaning effect was achieved, while the drama – which is usually why the uninteresting truth is modified – actually remained more difficult to access.
“Guardians of the formula” has a parallel dramaturgy in which we alternately witness Popović’s conflict with the demanding and threatening rulers, and the ideological conflict with the French doctor Matteo (Alexis Manenti).
Starting with the Cold War division and quickly abandoning it, Mate and Popović remain in opposite character and professional positions – the first is a cold healer, the second an emotionally accessible destroyer – only to agree at the very end on the issue of basic humanistic values.
While they are fighting a silent battle, below them remain the three irradiated patients at the “Marie Curie” Institute (by the way, Pavle Savić, in the film in one scene which, again, serves to achieve a praiseworthy meaningful effect, sent the unfortunates to Paris, having previously spoken with known to him as the director of the institution).
Života, Radojko and Rosa get the tried-and-tested treatment of young and jovial characters from “Montevideo” or “Toma”.
Their conflicts are easy to understand (peasant against city boy) and feelings are clear, while through the character of Rosa, a simplified martyr as in “Guardians of the Formula”, a series of more complex motives could be explored – especially today when the position of women in society is a ubiquitous topic.
What would be the conclusion?
“Guardians of the Formula” is primarily intended for the unpretentious viewer who goes to the cinema a couple of times a year and who we hope will save this society in the upcoming elections.
I remember, two years ago in Sarajevo, how happy I was when I got two tickets to the big premiere of “Tome”.
Namely, I knew that I would be watching it at a press screening, and the night receptionist at the hotel told me that he would like to treat his pregnant wife and brother (“He will go to protect her”) to a nice evening.
So we cheated the system and created a chain reaction of giving.
It is far from the bone marrow that, at the risk of their own lives, French citizens gave to Yugoslav twenty-year-olds.
But it is very good.
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